i. The phone that sounds like a ruru
I am walking up Aro Street, on a late spring evening between pools of lamplight and darkness, well, as dark as it gets in the city at least. A ruru calls, I check my phone for messages – nothing. A ruru calls, I check my phone for messages – nothing. A ruru calls, I check my phone for messages – a ruru calls. I put my phone back in my pocket. The warm night air presses against my face, insects in lamplight dance their version of a mating call. Are all songs and dances about reproduction? A ruru calls, the night air presses.
ii. The tui that sounds like a phone
In 1983 my friend’s parents got a new push button phone. It was beige, like my dad’s Stubbies, with oval buttons. Over time the plastic discoloured in the sun in their front entrance. My friend spoke to her boyfriend for hours. But the point that I’m getting to is the ringtone. Our rotary dial phone was heavy and its ring was made by actual metal bells hit by a metal hammer to create a harsh bbbringg, bbbringg! you could hear throughout the house.
This new phone made a soft digital trill – brrip, brrip – a higher pitch and softer, easily muffled. Until then I had only seen push button phones on American television shows like ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ where the rich white daughter had her own. I think she also had an electric toothbrush. It had been a real sign of ostentatious wealth but then the push button phone came to regular New Zealand homes.
Anyway, the point I’m getting to is the ringtone – that soft but insistent brrip, brrip – I heard it today, 30 years later in the song of a tui outside my window. A song that could never be answered by me, only another tui, with the same ringtone, creating what feels like an infinite calling loop.
Did a tui learn this call in 1983 and pass the song onto its descendants over the last 33 years? I imagine the slow progression . . . Or is this a more recent acquisition, learned from a nostalgic ringtone on someone’s cell phone last summer as they walked home from the train station? I don’t hear birds singing a telegraph.
There is a David Attenborough clip on YouTube, from his Life of Birds series, of a captive lyrebird bird that mimics a car alarm, a camera shutter and a chainsaw to perfection. The lyrebird’s syrinx muscle is the most complex of the song birds, giving them unmatched mimicry ability. Will the lyrebird still make car alarm sounds long after cars as we know them cease to be made? Or will it mimic new noises made by new technology that we haven’t yet invented?
iii. Dawn chorus
All birds have their own place in the musical range of dawn chorus so they can hear each other. They maximize their singing effort by using different patterns of vocalisations, slightly different frequencies, and different timing. Birds that sing at nearly the same frequency, like tui and bellbirds, will often alternate, with one bird waiting until the other is finished singing before he starts. Tui songs range right across the frequency spectrum, so they need a bit of acoustic space and are usually the first birds singing in the dawn. When bird calls are lost from the chorus, through extinction, other birds expand their range to fill the gap. There is a theory that mimicry may help a bird, and its offspring, avoid predators. Will human sounds fill the gap in the range that we’re creating, with birds singing the chainsaw that cut the gap in the forest?
iv. Who are you, huia?
Huia became extinct before field-recording technology was invented, but a sound fossil remains. Tangata whenua learned to mimic the sacred voices, to lure them into snares. This fossil was passed down between generations, even after the huia was gone. In 1954 Henare Hamana was recorded, whistling a huia call. Listen now, to a dead man calling a dead bird, echoing out of a machine.
v. New dawn
A crying baby. A cough. A cellphone. A camera shutter. A chainsaw. A whistle, A car alarm sounding, sounding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Heath’s debut collection of poetry Graft was published in May 2012 by VUP to critical acclaim. Graft won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry award in 2013 and was the first book of fiction or poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society of NZ Science Book Prize, also in 2013. Her poems, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in a range of NZ, Australian, UK and USA journals and magazines. She is currently working toward her PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria University. Her PhD research project explores how science is represented in the work of post-war, contemporary UK poets writing at the turn of the millennium. She is using this research to write poems about the intersection between people and technology.